Breitling, the brand best known in recent times for its aviation watches—which were popularised by actor John Travolta in the Nineties—has seen its share of changing times. The company was acquired from the Schneider family by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners in 2017 and consequently parachuted in CEO Georges Kern to help reboot the brand and accelerate its growth. Kern, who earlier helped IWC grow, has since scrapped traditional product lines and brought in Hollywood brand ambassadors such as Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt and says that more will be done for women’s lines in the future. Edited excerpts:
Q. Companies are seeing throwbacks to vintage style and designs as one way forward to creating emotional connections with customers. Your thoughts?
I agree that vintage pieces can create an emotional connection with customers. In addition, looking back into our archives is very much in line with our design mantra, which is modern-retro. We don’t want to be a vintage brand; we want to be a modern brand with an anchor in the past.
The challenge is finding that balance, taking something from the archives which may evoke an emotional connection but ensuring it fits the aesthetic of the modern day. When we launch a product inspired by our history, we, of course, need to look into the past; but we also need to look into the future: How will the brand look in five years? How will this impact Breitling’s wider product offering? Does this product have the potential to become a long-standing design? Once we’ve decided this, we then go into the technical aspects such as movement, and we develop something suitable for the market.
Q. You have brought back the Top Time and Premier chronographs. How have they done in recent times?
The Top Time Limited Edition is a great example of a watch that evokes an emotional connection with its eye-catching dial, which has long been known as the Zorro dial by collectors. We launched the watch early last year with a cool, retro look that gives a clear link to the past. More recently, in February this year, we announced a partnership with Australian lifestyle brand Deus Ex Machina--which inspired the rugged, retro Top Time Deus Limited Edition, designed for earth-based gods and goddesses who live and love an adventurous life. Both watches have been very well received.
Given the significant role that the Premier has played in Breitling’s history, we were excited about launching the Premier Heritage collection, inspired by our founders and the original Premier wristwatches from the 1940s. Willy Breitling was inspired to design the original Premier wristwatch of the 1940s after identifying people’s desire for a touch of elegance and glamour, in addition to a product being bold and tech-savvy. This was Breitling’s first step to aligning purpose with style. I think the desire for a technical watch with a desirable design still stands today, and, so far, we have experienced fantastic customer feedback on this collection.
Q. Most manufacturers have struggled with the pandemic in recent times. How have you fared?
Covid-19 has certainly had an impact, however, that impact is not unique to the watch industry. The industry is not in any sort of existential danger but it’s possible to imagine that in the years ahead, there could be some consolidations in terms of truly global and relevant brands. [What is] important is that the industry, [and] the watch brands adapt to the changing environment, as they have done successfully in the past. During the pandemic, we decided to proceed with the launch of our novelties via our Summit webcast, as it was essential for us to stay in contact with our consumers. We also wanted to share the inclusive and relaxed Breitling lifestyle and send out some positive, uplifting news that would cheer everyone up who tuned in. The summit format worked brilliantly in communicating our key messages and introducing our new products, and I believe our customers appreciated us staying in touch during this challenging period.
Q. What is your product line-up for the future?
We have some exciting launches in the pipeline. Since we re-positioned the brand and re-structured the product portfolio into the segments Air, Land, and Sea--which are deeply rooted in our history--we have been reaching new communities within the region and witnessing strong sales across all three of these brand worlds. The remainder of the year will see new products in each of our brand universes. We will also continue to expand our women’s offerings, after the Chronomat for Women and Chronomat South Sea.
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